Annie Leibovitz was studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1970 when she signed up for a night class in photography. Not long after, she shot a photograph of some ladders in an apple orchard, sent the image to Robert Kingsbury, then the art director of Rolling Stone, and was hired immediately and quickly promoted to chief photographer. In 1975 she went on the road with the Rolling Stones, photographing Sly Stone, Tammy Wynette, and the life of rock n’ roll on the open road. By the end of the decade she was irrevocably cool.
In 1983 Leibovitz moved from Rolling Stone to Vanity Fair and in 1998 added Vogue to her resumé. Larger budgets gave her significantly more leeway to conceive her imagination’s desires, and with them she shot the luminaries of the time in settings of intense and informal glamour. Movie stars, artists, athletes, and politicians have all come under her gaze, and in each image she has revealed something between nothing and everything. ”I don’t mind doing something obvious,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. ”I’m not looking for the ultimate image, the ultimate essence of someone. The chances of that happening are few and far between.” What she sets up, time and again, are images that bring the viewer into some sort of intimacy with the subject, even if only imagined: John Lennon curled around Yoko Ono; Demi Moore naked and pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair; Bruce Springsteen’s backside; Whoopi Goldberg in a bathtub of milk.
With otherworldly celebrities Leibovitz uses bright light to frame bodies, underexposes backgrounds to create a supernatural cast. For Olympians she shoots grainy silver gelatins, bronzing muscles, and bodies in flight with Grecian splendor. “A Leibovitz shot of a famous man or woman languishing on a settee or shaving in front of a bathroom mirror owes more to a Thomas Gainsborough portrait of a smirking earl seated in his lovely study, one foot resting on his knee, than it does to any recognizable photographic reference,” noted Ginia Bellafante for the New York Times. “Unlike Avedon, who shoots his subjects against blank backgrounds, her emphasis is almost completely on context.” Her background in painting may have given her this specific sense of light and composition, but that alone does not explain her signature style, so infused with intuition. Perhaps it is something she says to her subjects, or perhaps it is her own privacy that lets people expose themselves to her. Regardless, while her set-ups may be the most imitated of any photographer, no one has yet achieved her intimacy.
In addition to her magazine editorial work, Leibovitz has created advertising campaigns for American Express, the Gap, Givenchy, The Sopranos, and the Milk Board. She has exhibited widely, and her journalistic and personal work has been collected in six books: Photographs, Photographs 1970-1990, Olympic Portraits (from the Atlanta games), Women, American Music, and A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005, a catalog for the traveling exhibit that debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in October 2006. Of the last, featuring personal photographs of her family, her three daughters, and her lover, Susan Sontag, Leibovitz said, “With Susan it was a love story. With my parents it was the relationship of a lifetime. And with my children it’s the future. I just tried to create an honest work that had all those things in it.”
Excerpt from Annie Leibovitz at Work (2008)
When I first worked for Rolling Stone, in the early ’70s, we wouldn’t photograph a band until they came to town. I hardly ever traveled. I took some pictures of the Rolling Stones when they came through San Francisco in 1971 and 1972. Truman Capote was supposed to write a story for the magazine about the 1972 tour, and the editor, Jann Wenner, said it was O.K. if I went along to two or three cities . . .
I learned about power on that tour. About how people in an audience can lose a sense of themselves and melt into a frenzied, mindless mass. Mick and Keith had tremendous power both on and offstage. They would walk into a room like young gods. I found that my proximity to them lent me power also. A new kind of status. It didn’t have anything to do with my work. It was power by association.
I’ve been on many tour buses and at many concerts, but the best photographs I’ve made of musicians at work were done during that Rolling Stones tour. I probably spent more time on it than on any other subject. For me, the story about the pictures is about almost losing myself, and coming back, and what it means to be deeply involved in a subject. You can get amazing work, but you’ve got to be careful. The thing that saved me was that I had my camera by my side. It was there to remind me who I was and what I did. It separated me from them.
Annie Leibovitz at Work (2008)
A Photographer’s Life 1990-2005 (2006)
American Music (2004)
Olympic Portraits (1996)
Photographs 1970-1990 (1991)
PBS American Masters
In conversation with Jane Sarkin O’Connor of Vanity Fair